A dynamic yet incomplete account of how apartheid came to be, what it did to those who lived under it and how it ended.
Lapierre (Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union, 2008, etc.) opens with the arrival in 1652 of white farmers sent to the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch East India Company—not to colonize but to grow scurvy-preventing vegetables for sailors on their trading vessels. Within a few years the white farmers, or Boers, headed north to claim what they believed was land promised to them by God. Now calling themselves Afrikaners, they dispossessed the native Africans and set up independent states where only whites could be citizens. The author peoples his narrative with vivid stories of individuals, black and white, who shaped the history of the land that was to become South Africa. He writes about the discovery of diamonds and gold, the fights to control these resources, the Boer Wars and the creation in the 1930s of the Broederbond, an organization devoted to Afrikaner nationalism and a racist ideology inspired by Hitler’s notions of a master race. For the curious, Lapierre includes in an appendix a sample of some of the meticulous laws enforcing apartheid. Villains abound, but perhaps the most shocking is Wouter Basson, a white doctor whom Lapierre says concocted noxious chemicals designed to destroy blacks. Among the heroes in the narrative are Helen Lieberman, a white woman, the so-called Mother Teresa of South Africa, who aided blacks in the most dangerous circumstances imaginable, and Nelson Mandela, who, after his release from prison, reached out to whites in an effort to unify the country. Lapierre ends with a discussion of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered reconciliation in exchange for confessions revealing the truth of racist crimes.
The author’s focus on individuals makes for an engaging, easy-to-read story, but he gives short shrift to the role of international pressure in ending apartheid.